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Daniel Biss on His “Fight for the Soul” of the Democratic Party

The gubernatorial candidate discusses his views on Mike Madigan, leaving the University of Chicago to run for the Illinois House, and juggling flaming torches.

Photo: Lisa Predko

In October, you were polling at 6 percent. Have you considered dropping out?

I’m not well known across the state. But we’ve been successful raising money. Spending it to get in front of voters—that hasn’t happened yet. In the meantime, the other candidates haven’t taken off. And that creates a striking opportunity for a progressive middle-class candidate.

So you wouldn’t say that J.B. Pritzker has taken off?

I think it’s actually quite shocking. He’s just written his fifth $7 million check [to his campaign], so he’s $35 million deep, and in that poll he’s still stuck in the 30s.

Bruce Rauner paints Mike Madigan as a villain. How do you see him?

We have two options. There’s the Rauner option, which is a constant personal war with Madigan. And there’s the Pritzker option, which is, “Hey, I’m Madigan’s guy.” Those are both the wrong path for Illinois. I’ve been independent of Madigan, and I’m proud of that. He has been there too long and he’s too powerful. But I also don’t pretend that the problem is a person; the problem is a system.

You ran for comptroller in 2015 but dropped out. Why?

It became clear that there was no path forward that wouldn’t be incredibly divisive for the Democratic Party, so I got out. What I see now is a fight for the soul of the party. I can’t imagine a more important fight to be having.

In 2008, you left your job teaching math at the University of Chicago to run for the Illinois House. Why?

I fell in love with math when I was a teenager. But I didn’t spend time thinking about what other things I was passionate about. When I got to the university in the fall of 2002, George W. Bush was president. Six months later, we’re heading off to war in Iraq. And I felt like I had a responsibility to show up and start acting.

The Sun-Times wrote: “Are Gov Hopeful Biss’s Claims of Math Prowess Pi in the Sky?” It questioned your skills based on errors in some academic papers.

If my opponent wants to have a fight on who has a stronger record as a mathematician, I feel comfortable about how this race is going to land.

Still juggling flaming torches?

Every now and again, I’ll set something on fire and juggle it. Bloomington, Indiana [where Biss grew up], was a real juggling capital. One of the guys joined Cirque du Soleil.

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